By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Larranaga came up with ten points that characterized a perfect possession. "It all starts with defense," the coach explains. "You get back, you're in a stance, you're seeing ball and seeing man."
Now he had his own style.
Antonio Daniels was sleeping off a win from the night before against Central Michigan when he blinked awake to see Larranaga standing in his cramped dorm room. The cold night was still pressing in at the windows of Offenhauer Tower. It was February 8, 1996.
Dizzy with sleep, the Bowling Green point guard shot his coach a puzzled look. "Antonio," the older man said in a level tone. "Your phone is about to ring, and it's going to be your mother."
The call came right then. The 20-year-old's mom quickly broke the news: Chris, Daniels' older brother and a standout NBA prospect at the University of Dayton, had died in his sleep from a freak heart ailment. Daniels collapsed weeping into Larranaga's arms.
Daniels remembers getting dressed and dragging himself into the coach's car. They drove two hours south to Dayton so he could be with his family. When Chris was buried later that week in Columbus, the entire Bowling Green basketball team showed up. Daniels, wearing his brother's number 33, returned to the court later that month and scored a last-minute layup that beat Eastern Michigan.
During the following summer, Larranaga recalls handing Daniels a key to the Bowling Green gym. A lanky six-foot-four with an impressive 80-inch wingspan and flashbulb smile, Daniels worked his grief out on the court. By his senior year, Daniels' field-goal percentage went from 47.8 to 54.7, and he became the fourth pick in the 1997 NBA draft.
"I've been through heaven and hell with Coach L," Daniels says today. "For me, it was important to have Coach L there, period. I remember when I got drafted — you can have ten people at your table. Outside of my family members, I had Coach L there."
That kind of connection was all a part of the environment Larranaga built throughout the early and mid-'90s at Bowling Green. Central to that was knocking down the boundary between work and home. Liz Larranaga understood this. "He once said to me that if you just measured a life by wins and losses, it would be pretty empty," she says today.
As they were growing up, Jay and his younger brother, Jon, were always running around the locker room or traveling with their father on recruiting trips. Jay got an early glimpse of his dad defying the odds when the middle-schooler tagged along for the December 1988 University of Kentucky Christmas tournament. The Falcons nailed the nationally ranked Wildcats 56-54 before a hometown crowd.
The Larranagas lived near campus. The team would hang out in the finished basement. "They had a big-screen TV, they had a big huge couch, they had a pool table, and one of the assistant coaches [Keith Noftz] would always do card tricks for us," recalls Anthony Stacey, a power forward on Larranaga's later BGSU teams. "Those are the times you never forget."
Dinner invitations came often, particularly when Larranaga got wind players had blown through their food stipends. The menu was always filet mignon, rice, rolls, and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. "At Bowling Green, he wasn't making what he's making now, but he went all out for his team," Daniels says. "As a player, you think, 'He's a guy I want to be on the front lines for.' "
The players were so comfortable stopping over at the Larranaga house that once, when the coach was putting up a coaching staff job applicant overnight, some guys knocked on the door at 11 p.m., asking to meet the new guy. Larranaga invited them in but told them he wasn't going to wake his houseguest.
Keeping the door open for his players meant Larranaga was there with life advice when needed. In the winter of 1995, Larranaga called a stocky freshman guard named DeMar Moore into his office. Poor classroom performance meant the player was academically ineligible. The news came at a bad time. Moore had just found out that his girlfriend back in Sandusky, Ohio, was pregnant.
"I think he was a little disappointed, [but] we talked, and he put things in perspective about what I needed to do," Moore says now. "I never really had a male figure in my life, and he showed me the ropes. He said to use it as a lesson."
Each day before practices and games, the coach offered a "Thought of the Day," anything from the Bible to Sun Tzu's The Art of War. "If you asked 100 of my players what their favorite thought was, probably 90 of them would say: 'Begin with the end in mind,' " Larranaga says, referring to a Stephen Covey quote.
Sometimes he'd cut the lights in the locker room, ask his players to close their eyes, and walk the team through visualizing victories. Each game day, a different player was assigned to pick a song for the locker room. On court, his trademark whistle meant authority.
"Whenever he whistled, we'd automatically look over and know he wasn't happy with us," Stacey says. "I don't know how he does it. It's the loudest thing I've ever heard."